The bombing incident at Mindanao State University – The Moro conflict in the Philippines, the presence of the Islamic State, and terrorism in the country. Marawi, situated in the Muslim-majority Lanao del Sur within the Bangsamoro autonomous region of Mindanao in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, witnessed a five-month siege in 2017. During this period, more than 1,100 individuals lost their lives in the intense conflict between insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Mindanao State University, located in Marawi, is a government-operated higher education institution. Although the campus lacks a chapel, Catholic Sunday Masses are commonly conducted in the university’s gymnasium.As a state university, the deployment of military and police personnel within the university campus is prohibited before the incident.In contrast to conventional universities, MSU’s expansive campus, spanning seven barangays, is without fencing.
The bombing incident at Mindanao State University: Bombing
At approximately 7:30 am, an improvised explosive device detonated during a Mass at the Dimaporo gymnasium of Mindanao State University in Marawi, following the Kyrie portion.Approximately 60 individuals attended the Mass, presided over by Franciscan priest Benigno Flores Jr., who survived the incident.
The explosion resulted in the tragic death of four individuals, with at least 50 others sustaining injuries.According to the police, the bombing was not a suicide attack. An eyewitness reported observing a man placing a bag suspected to contain the bomb, and CCTV footage revealed two suspected bombers arriving on a motorcycle at the gymnasium around 7:03 am, staying for eight minutes.The explosion left a crater in the gymnasium floor.
ABS-CBN reported that the improvised explosive device (IED) consisted of a 60mm mortar round and an RPG high-explosive anti-personnel MEUG, concealed in a black tote bag.
Authorities disclosed that a bomb threat circulated the night before the incident, with the sender threatening to bomb Marawi without specifying a target.
The incident has drawn comparisons to the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombings.
Individuals responsible for the act
On the same day as the bombing, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility.The international group’s claim is currently undergoing validation. Other suspected groups include the IS-affiliate Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf.
Speculation arose that the bombing might be a retaliation against the Philippine government, as state forces had eliminated 21 members of the Dawlah Islamiyah group since June 2023. Two days before the bombing, 11 members of Dawlah Islamiya were killed in clashes with the Philippine Army in Datu Hoffer Ampatuan, Maguindanao del Sur.
Additionally, Abu Sayyaf leader and Dawlah Islamiyah central committee member Mudzrimar Sawadjaan was killed in a separate clash with government forces in Basilan a day before the attack.
Authorities consulted Muslim leaders and security analysts to explore any connection between the bombing and the 2023 Israel–Hamas war. The consensus is that the incident is unrelated, but the government is not ruling out this angle.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) identified two “persons of interest” linked to the bombing, both residing in Lanao del Sur. They are Arseni Lumen Membisa and Wahab Sandigan Macabayao from the Dawlah Islamiyah group, also affiliated with the Maute Group.
“Lapitos” (Membisa) was identified as the motorcycle driver used to transport the bomb, while another suspected Maute member and explosives expert, “Engineer” (Kadapi Mimbesa), was believed to have planted the bomb inside the gymnasium, as identified by a mass attendee. Mimbesa, identified by university faculty and officials, had enrolled twice at the school, failing to complete his studies each time.
Both Membisa and Mimbesa were allegedly involved in previous bombings in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur and were facing murder charges. Two more individuals were tagged as persons of interest, and police mentioned the presence of two lookouts working for the attackers.
On December 6, Jafar Gamo Sultan, one of the suspects, was arrested in Marawi. He was allegedly the companion of the person identified by eyewitnesses as “Omar,” who placed the bomb.
The bombing incident at Mindanao State University: Responses to the incident
In the aftermath of the bombing, President Basari Mapupuno of the university issued a memorandum declaring the suspension of classes and extracurricular activities from December 4 until further notice. Consequently, students, faculty, and staff were sent back to their home provinces, with approximately 600 students evacuating. Psychological support services were also provided to affected students. The university acknowledged security lapses on the campus but assured the implementation of measures to enhance safety.
On December 5, students and alumni gathered at the Dimaporo gymnasium to light candles in remembrance of the victims. The university later announced the resumption of classes on December 11, following the deployment of additional police personnel to enhance campus security.
President Bongbong Marcos initially attributed the bombing to foreign terrorists. Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, during a news conference, indicated a strong possibility of a foreign element being involved in the bombing.
On December 6, the House of Representatives adopted Resolution 1504, condemning the bombing as a terrorist attack.
Senator Ronald dela Rosa, when discussing the potential declaration of a “state of lawlessness” in Marawi, emphasized the need for further study before making such a decision. Zia Adiong, the House member for Lanao del Sur’s 1st district, advised against declaring martial law in the city, deeming it counter-productive and likely to cause “unnecessary panic.” He also called on the government to reassess the allocation of funds for intelligence gathering. The Armed Forces of the Philippines asserted that martial law was unnecessary, maintaining that they were effectively managing the situation.
The Philippine Senate conducted a closed-door meeting with security officials on December 6 to address the bombing. Following the meeting, Senate President Migz Zubiri encouraged local officials to investigate alleged radicalization efforts since the 2017 Marawi siege.
Police or policing authorities
The joint operation of the PNP and AFP, aided by groups like the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was launched to apprehend suspects associated with the bombing. The PNP declared a red alert status in Mindanao, while Metro Manila was placed on heightened alert. The Philippine Coast Guard implemented increased security and intelligence-gathering measures in the aftermath of the bombing.
Both the PNP and AFP refuted claims of intelligence failure, asserting that they had provided warnings to stakeholders in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and Lanao del Norte about potential retaliatory attacks before the university bombing. However, on December 7, the AFP acknowledged the possibility of a failure “in a way,” indicating that accountability for its personnel is yet to be determined.
In preparation for the Christmas season, the PNP elevated security nationwide, suspending leaves filed for after December 15 to ensure an adequate presence of personnel.
Regional administrations or municipal authorities
The regional government of Bangsamoro strongly denounced the perpetrators of the incident, labeling their actions as “atrocious and cowardly.” Murad Ebrahim, the Chief Minister of Bangsamoro, committed to covering the medical expenses of the victims. Governor Mamintal Adiong Jr. of Lanao del Sur stated that his office had provided financial assistance to the injured and pledged additional support for those who lost their lives in the attack. Close to a thousand students went back to their home provinces after the explosion, facilitated by various local government units organizing bus trips for their return.
Alternate government entities
The Commission on Higher Education encouraged all higher education institutions in the nation to reassess their safety and security protocols. The National Security Council identified the absence of security on the MSU campus as a contributing factor to the bombing. Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya recommended that MSU terminate its unique arrangement, enabling it to manage its own security, and instead, advocate for closer “coordination” with the police and military.
Faith community or religious domain
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) expressed condemnation for the bombing, highlighting its occurrence on the first Sunday of Advent. Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, the Archbishop emeritus of Cotabato, described the bombing as a “massacre” and a “terrorist attack” but appealed for peace. The President of the CBCP, Pablo Virgilio David, declared December 6 as a day of mourning for the victims of the bombing.
The United Imams of the Philippines denounced the incident as a transgression of both “human and Islamic norms.”
Global or worldwide
Delegates from Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States expressed condemnation for the bombing. The European Union ambassador to the Philippines conveyed sorrow over the incident. ASEAN labeled the bombing as a “heinous terrorist attack.”
Pope Francis issued a statement offering prayers for the victims.
False information and expressions of hatred
The non-government organization Council on Climate Conflict and Action Asia (CCCAA) expressed concern that the incident could be exploited to create divisions between Christians and Muslims. Its Early Response Network observed an increase in the prevalence of hate speech. Among the circulated content was a fabricated quote card shared on Facebook from an account named Fahima Salik TV, falsely attributing a statement to Bangsamoro Interior Minister Naguib Sinarimbo, suggesting that the bombing occurred due to the absence of a place for Christians in Marawi. Sinarimbo denounced the misinformation, stating that he and his ministry did not issue such a statement.
Claims that one of the perpetrators was seen at the Davao City hall after the bombing were dismissed by the police in Davao City as disinformation.